Rogue Forces

Why does the Israeli army defend illegal outposts rather than dismantle them en masse? Why doesn’t the political leadership give the orders for the army to act?

Yagil Levy, an excellent analyst, has a very good, and very frightening explanation, via Ha’aretz:

The bias of the army is naturally in favor of the settlers, over the Palestinians. This bias was strengthened by the deployment of the military force in three circles. The first circle is regional defense, reserve units, made up of settlers, that participate in the settlements’ daily defense. In this context, the army entrusted the settlers with weapons as reserve soldiers, and the result was the growth of armed militias in the territories…

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A Guy at a Bus Stop — New “Necesssary Stories” column in The Jerusalem Report

I spotted Guy at the shabby bus stop on the south-bound side of the Geha Highway, at the foot of the narrow bridge that leads to the Ramat Gan campus of Bar-Ilan University, near the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

Most highway bus stops in Israel have been cleaned up, but 30 years ago, they all looked like this – pockmarked, cracked, crumbling, covered with graffiti and posters. Trash litters the ground, and behind us, down in a gully, stands a small trailer-cum-snack bar, whose stick-skinny and unshaven proprietor sprawls on one of several plastic chairs scattered around his enterprise, which may or may not be legal, but looks like it isn’t.

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More on Mofaz’s mediocrity

Gershom Gorenberg

Buried in a Ha’aretz story on training exercises aimed at rebuilding the Israeli army’s ability to fight a war is the mention of the newspaper’s own report [emphasis added]

from October 2002 about the expected reduction in training exercises by the regular units for 2003, stating: “The burden of the territories displaces training; only two weeks per year.” This was the plan, but in reality, the troops sometimes trained even less than that. The article also reported that the army was compelled to divert all of its resources to combating Palestinian terror, and it quotes brigade and battalion commanders who admit that, two years into the intifada, their charges have no notion of regular training and exercise.

That article was based in part on a conversation with the head of the IDF’s training department at the time, Colonel Moti Kidor. Kidor told about how, when he tried to warn then chief of staff Shaul Mofaz about the decline in the regular units’ battle fitness, Mofaz nearly threw him out of his office.

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Secret Shorts: Avner Shor’s New Book on Sayeret Matkal

Haim Watzman

When my son informed me Saturday night that he was taking all three of my pairs of walking shorts back to the army with him, I was left scratching my head. Why would a commando-in-training need three pairs of walking shorts? He wasn’t telling me, and I resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never know.

In shadowy, prestigious elite military units, not only operations, but mundane everyday activities remain secret pretty much forever. As if I needed to be reminded of that, Sefarim, Ha’aretz’s Wednesday book supplement, has a two page spread (in Hebrew) on a new book about “The Unit”—Avner Shor’s Crossing Borders: Sayeret Matkal and Its Founder, Avraham Arnan. Reviewer Yiftah Reicher-Atir, himself a veteran of The Unit, notes that Shor’s book contains little about the actual operations that Sayeret Matkal has carried out since it was founded in 1957. The large majority of them remain classified.

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Who’s In the Way Here? On War Ethics and Mahsom Watch

Gershom Gorenberg

In your last post, Haim, you mention the soldier who is outraged by Machsom Watch volunteers at checkpoints in the West Bank. Much as I understand him, I think he’s got it backwards.

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War Ethics In A War Zone (2)

Haim Watzman

In response to your last post, Gershom, we don’t disagree about most of the big issues. Of course soldiers, like national leaders and citizens, must make moral judgments, and must make them frequently. My point my previous post was that people in all these categories inevitably make these decisions with imperfect—often woefully imperfect—information. I admire Walzer’s effort to establish practical guidelines for how to conduct war and conflict justly and I largely agree with him.

But I think he is at times overly sanguine about people’s ability to make educated judgments in real time in situations of conflict. Indeed, he acknowledges the difficulty. At the beginning of Chapter 19 of Just and Unjust Wars (p. 304 in my paperback of the 4th edition), he writes:

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Nostalgia Makes Bad Military Policy

You can’t help liking Major General (Res.) Emanuel Sakal–even when you think his vision of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is totally skewed. At this week’s conference on The Decline of Citizen Armies in Democratic States (see my post on Wednesday), he offered a list of reasons why an all-volunteer army would be the end of the IDF. Some of the reasons were good, many were laughable, and none of them were backed up by facts.

Sakal, with his sun-wrinkled face and sharp gaze, is a paragon of Israeli republican virtue–he’s a man who devoted his life to his country’s defense and now, in his old age, gives his people the benefit of his experience and wisdom from his perch as a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

The problem is that he acquired his wisdom decades ago and hasn’t bothered to update it. Sakal’s still caught in the “trust me” attitude all too common in the IDF, in which rank and battle scars are taken to be better indicators of reliability than empirical evidence.

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The IDF: All Conscripts, All Volunteers, Or Something In Between?

Haim Watzman

One of Israel’s least-known secrets is that it no longer has a people’s army. I don’t say best-kept secret because no one is trying to keep it a secret. It’s a secret simply because it so clashes with the country’s mythology, and with the image it projects, that many of its own citizens and boosters prefer not to think about it.

But the question of whether the process by which the Israel Defense Forces has become less and less broad-based and more and more professional should be encouraged or decried is the subject of lively debate in the academic community. Most of the speakers at today’s  conference on the subject sponsored by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies sought to dispel some of the more hoary parts of the myth and to suggest that the old model of an army in which everyone serves might not be the only or best option for Israel today.

Keep in mind-this myth-bashing and iconoclasm was sponsored by Bar-Ilan, probably the most conservative, patriotic academic redoubt in Israel. We’re not talking about a group of effete post-Zionists but rather about academics solidly in the political and cultural mainstream.

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Beirut Nostalgia

Haim Watzman

Beirut is an evocative city even when you’ve only seen it in its worse moments. In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen waxes nostalgic about Beirut of a quarter-century ago, and in today’s Ha’aretz, Yehuda Ben-Meir praises Israel’s restraint in not invading the city back in the first Lebanon War. I was probably in Beirut at the same time Cohen was, so I’d like to join the party.

I was two days into Hell Week, the first chapter of my infantry NCO course, when helicopters appeared out of nowhere. We had barely slept for two nights, had eaten little, and were caked with the mud stirred up by a persistent late-winter downpour. Within a few minutes we threw our gear together and lugged it into the choppers that flew us to Tyre.

Israel had been in Lebanon for six and half months then and the quick victory and new Middle East that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had promised had not materialized. The IDF had begun a long and intractable occupation of all of southern Lebanon–including the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. Ben-Meir, who as a parliamentarian for the National Religious Party, was a member of the governing coalition at the time, is not accurate in his description of events. Israeli forces entered the Lebanese capital at the beginning of the war. The restraint he speaks of was not pressing further into the northern and western sectors of the city, where Cohen was, where Arafat and the PLO leadership had been until they were, as Ben-Meir describes, forced to leave.

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Tough Love: Israel And Its Army

Haim Watzman

Big news: public trust in the Israel Defense Forces dropped a full three percentage points in the last year. Now only 71 percent of Israelis (all Israelis, including non-Jews) trust their army, as opposed to 74 percent last year. The figures come from the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index. I would guess that the generals are not exactly quaking in their boots. But given the damning criticism of the army included in the Winograd Report (available in Hebrew here) on the Second Lebanon War, issued earlier this year, it’s rather surprising that the IDF remains so popular. Or is it?

In fact, the army remains far more popular than every other public institution in the country. Only 35 percent trust the Supreme Court (a drop of 12 points), only 17 percent the prime minister, only 37 percent the media.

Does this mean that Israel is a modern Prussia, taking glory in the macho military values embodied in its armed forces? Not exactly. Israelis are hardly alone in admiring their fighting men. In fact, armies tend to be wildly popular institutions in most countries. I recall an essay by Jorge Luis Borges (I can’t find the specific reference right now) in which he explained the central place of the army in the society of Argentina and the admiration in which it was held-despite that army’s penchant for staging coups d’etat and pushing those who don’t admire it out of airplanes.

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Running from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

The siren last night caught me backing up my hard disk. I’d planned to be at the neighborhood ceremony or upstairs with my family at the beginning of Memorial Day, but I kept procrastinating. When I got upstairs, the television broadcast of the official ceremony was just coming to an end. I had something to eat and watched the segments about fallen soldiers and their families.

“I need to talk to Asor,” Ilana said. So I called him on my cell phone, figuring that he wouldn’t answer. He did. “We needed to hear your voice,” I told him. Ilana tried to take the phone but started crying. Asor was impatient, said he had to go. Should we be thankful that we’re watching the Memorial Day programming rather than being part of it, or brood over the possibility that in some future year we might be on the screen?

When this morning’s siren went off at 11 a.m., I didn’t even hear it. The same unconscious repression mechanism that was at work last night did it again-I was in an elevator in the Malha shopping mall. The door opened and everyone was standing stock-still with their backs to me. For a second I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that I’d again tried to avoid the moment.

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Socks and the Man

Israel Independence Day is coming up next week, and I’m feeling very patriotic. So I went out this morning and bought $93 worth of socks for the Israel Defense Forces. I looked at Ties.com men’s sock collection and found some brilliant socks, but I decided that I had spent enough money on socks for one day!!

Often, however, I have to buy the socks without the inspiration. Every month I shell out sums like this for hats, scarfs, t-shirts, underwear and other gear that the IDF does not supply to its soldiers. And socks. My son is in combat training in a commando unit, so he goes through a lot of them. This time, I wanted to do something a little special for him. I was recommended by a friend of mine to look into a company like Foto Socken, who allow you to create customised socks. This is such a cool concept that I thought I might as well get a pair for my son. Everyone can get a basic pair of socks, but not everyone gets a customised pair. I hope he appreciates the effort I put into this gift.

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